Andrew W. Field, The French at Waterloo: Eyewitness Accounts (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Waterloo is the battle. Outside of the United States, the Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815, has been the most discussed engagement in military history. Historians at all levels of competence have poured over the events of that day, producing hundreds of books and articles on every facet of what was undoubtedly the most decisive battle in European history. But beyond the broad-brush strokes, sketching in the major events, there is still no full agreement on the details of how or why the French under Napoleon Bonaparte lost to the combined Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies. Andrew Field has written extensively on the battle, but he too concedes that his interpretations are open to question. The French at Waterloo: Eyewitness Accounts is Field’s presentation of the eyewitness evidence he used to create his analysis of the battle. It is an absorbing and stimulating read.
The French at Waterloo opens unusually and helpfully with a brief synopsis of his twenty-six eyewitnesses in his contents section. These are divided into four chapters: Napoleon’s own accounts; those from his Household; descriptions of events from the Imperial Headquarters; and the testimonies of those out in the field fighting the battle. Field is quick to intercept critics of his selections and translations, fending them off with a brief explanation of his motive and method and a survey of the pitfalls of dealing with this type of historical evidence. He also acknowledges that his editing of the sources inevitably supports his interpretation of the battle. Thus disarmed, we move on to the eyewitnesses. Field usefully prefaces each account with a short biography of the witness and their place on the battlefield and in the historical record. The accounts are judiciously edited to keep them on point, and along with Field’s descriptions are invariably interesting. Being from the ‘new’ school of ground-up military history, I enjoyed the accounts of soldiers more than the operational level machinations of senior officers, with Private Louis Canler’s chaotic experience my highlight of the collection. Field concludes with a perhaps unnecessary appendix for the French Order of Battle.
Sources are the backbone of history without which we are stumbling around in the darkness, searching for answers that cannot be found. They must be handled with care, however, and for such a cataclysmic event like Waterloo we need an expert guide. Field certainly fits that description for The French at Waterloo. He welcomes his readers into the debate over how Waterloo is interpreted, allowing them to work with the sources and come to their own conclusions. For a book like this, you cannot ask for anything more. I am looking forward to the second volume in this series with great anticipation. 10/10.